The Present
Karen Moltenbrey
October 14, 2016

The Present

Sometimes it’s the aesthetic that drives a short film. Other times it is the story. In the case of “The Present,” an animated short directed and animated by Jacob Frey from Filmakademie, there is no doubt that the story is the driving force – not because the aesthetic is weak in any way. In fact, the opposite is true. But, rather, because the story is so very strong.

“The Present” tells the story of a little boy who spends most of his time indoors playing video games. One day his mom decides to give him an unusual present, which is about to change his life. “For me, the great thing about this short is its story,” says Frey. And, he is not alone in that assessment. 

As the story develops, it takes audiences through a range of emotions. When the boy is introduced, he seems to be the typical teen who likes to play video games. His initial attitude toward his present, a dog, is off-putting. From that point on, viewers are taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride as their feelings toward the boy continually change as the story progresses. To provide more details would spoil the ending for new viewers. 

“I spent a lot of time on getting the character’s emotional change working. With only three minutes (the film is 3:23), it’s hard to make an emotional change believable and not have the character feel bipolar,” says Frey. 

The story is based on a Brazilian Web comic by Fabio “Coala” Cavalcanti. When an English-translated version of one of his particular comics appeared online, Frey stumbled upon it and was inspired. “The moment I read the comic, I immediately knew that I had to turn it into a short film,” he says. “The story was extremely emotional, and the twist at the end totally caught me off guard. The setup was perfect for a short film, and I had a strong vision on how to translate it into a film format.”

“The twist” had the Internet buzzing about the film, and it has screened at hundreds of film festivals, most of them Oscar-qualifying competitions. As of this writing, it had received 65 awards.

Technical Focus

Like all student projects at Filmakademie, “The Present” was done entirely as part of a classroom assignment, though the audio recordings and mixing were produced outside of school. Production started in early November 2012 and was completed in March 2014, with assistance from a dozen or so classmates.

From the outset, Frey was determined to incorporate high-quality aesthetics that were on par with major film studios. To this end, all the characters and sets were modeled in Autodesk’s Maya, although Pixologic’s ZBrush was used in certain instances for adding displacement maps. The characters and hero elements were textured in The Foundry’s Mari and the rest in Adobe’s Photoshop, while compositing was done with The Foundry’s Nuke, and lighting in Maya with RenderMan Studio 18.

“I tried to work ahead with texturing. I modeled the entire set and started applying a temp shader to each model and created temp textures in Photoshop, which I then linked to each shader,” explains Frey. “That way, the texture artist didn’t have to worry about proper texture sizes anymore, and there wasn’t any memory being wasted on 4K textures, which would have ended up being all the way in the background.

Frey animated the movie in Maya, making sure that all the assets were available for those assisting on the project. “I also spent a lot of time in the animatic/blocking phase and really tried to make sure that before I jumped into animation, most of the storytelling questions were answered. With the tight schedule, the last thing I wanted to do was animate something just to find out later that it wasn’t needed in the short.”

In fact, one of the biggest hurdles Frey faced was getting the short done in time. “We were a very small team, and over the course of production, it was mostly Markus [Kranzler, who did shading, lighting, and rendering] and I who worked on the short. It was hard to find people for most of the positions we needed help for, so it was pretty much up to me to [do that work],” he says. 

According to Frey, one of the more valuable lessons he learned from the project was about efficiency, time management, and resource management. “And, planning ahead to avoid unnecessary delays,” he adds. “It also helped me figure out my skill set and what I am realistically able to achieve.”

On the hardware side, the students used Dell workstations with 32GB RAM and a high-end Nvidia Quadro graphics card.

Fur Foray

One of the two main characters in the story is a dog, which required fur. Fellow student Pascal Floerks, who was also working on his own graduation short “Baer” at the time, helped the group set up a hair/fur pipeline of their own. After using two different approaches – including Joe Alter’s Shave and a Haircut and ZBrush’s FiberMesh – the filmmakers tried Yeti Fur from Peregrine Labs. 

“It gave us great results and helped us wrangle our fur pipeline. It is node-based and easy to control, and has great grooming tools,” says Frey.

During production, Frey brought his pet dog to school, for reference and inspiration. “I even brought her into my graduation project evaluation,” he says. “The head of the animation institute told me jokingly that I may only get my degree if the dog stays. Everyone enjoyed having her around. Growing up with dogs was also a big reason why I fell in love with this project.”

Well, Frey did get his degree and is currently working as an animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California, on the upcoming animated feature Moana. Prior to that, he was an animator on Zootopia, where his skills – and his love of animals – once again made a perfect pairing.